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An Address by
The Rev. William S. Seabury, D.D.
Professor of Ecclesiastical Polity and Law
in the General Theological Seminary

Before the Church Club of New York, March 23, 1904.

New York: Edwin S. Gorham, 1904. 26 pp.

THE pleasure which I have experienced in being honoured by the invitation to address you has, I confess, been somewhat alloyed by anxiety. The subject assigned is of the gravest importance; and the circumstances under which I have been obliged to approach it have led me to fear that I might be unable to treat it in a manner commensurate with that importance.

I partly comfort myself, however, with the reflection that I am not before you in the responsible office of a teacher, but rather in the capacity of a friend and fellow-seeker after truth; so1 that such thoughts as I may be enabled to express will, I hope, be received simply as contributions to the common stock of those considerations whereby we may attain a sound and impartial judgment. I feel, too, that you will: realize that I am not here to plead a cause, either in the way of attack or defence, but rather as trying to present certain plain truths bearing upon our better understanding of the subject before us; truths which in the pressure of controversy or worldliness have been, or are apt to be, overlooked, but which upon reflection may seem to furnish us with firm and salutary principles.

Considering the spirit of the age, or one might rather say of recent ages, it is not surprising that we should find ourselves confronted with many and serious questions regarding our acceptance not only of Episcopal, but indeed of all authority.

In that great epoch which we call the Reformation, ideas, previously more or less floating and unformed, converged into a certain pervading influence which though primarily concerned with religious principles, produced a line of thought and action which bore quite as strongly, though less directly, upon the social as upon the religious life of those who came within its range: and which has resulted in the settled purpose of betterment not only of the Church, but also of the State, and of the whole social and economic condition of humanity. The mission of these ideas, so to speak, is not yet fulfilled; but neither has it yet been abrogated. From time to time, in one place or another, this potential influence is checked or overborne by reactionary impulses, but on the whole it presses on in its majestic course, guided by the overruling power and providence of God, until in His own good time, one may hope, it shall cover the earth as the waters cover the sea; and men shall live in that state of peace and freedom which is essential to happiness, and which can only come from the mutual love which is born of the love of God: a state which should surely be suggested to us as we daily pray, "Thy Kingdom come; Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven."

It is not difficult to discern the cause and potency of this influence when we realize the directness of the appeal to conscience which has all along been characteristic of it. In the appeal to his conscience, man discovered himself. It dawned upon him by slow degrees, and with greater or less clearness of distinction between right and wrong, that he was no longer a mere cog in the great wheel of government either by the State or by the Church, but that he was somehow a living portion of these great organisms in his own individual right. For Conscience implies will--else why does it approve a choice of actions? And will implies judgment, more or less informed and enlightened--else upon what is the capacity of choice to be exercised? So that while from mere vis inertiae men have continued in the habit of being governed, yet they have continued also to grow in the habit of seeking justice under government, or what has seemed to them to be justice. And so has grown also the habit of weighing the requirements made of them; of testing them by the everlasting right which lies back of them, and of labouring to have them brought into closer conformity to the standard of right; as that standard has been apprehended: Grave misapprehensions and grievous mistakes, appalling calamities and devastating woes, temporary and partial improvements succeeded by new difficulties--all these have been and are still being passed through on the road to the great ideal, which man feels, even if he does not always clearly understand it. But the road is still winding through the tangled history of man; and man is upon lit; often unconscious or but half conscious of it; often groping and blundering upon it; but so long as, and in such proportion as, judgment can discern, and conscience can guide, and will can choose, man struggles on to the attainment of the Gospel ideal of self-government subject to the will of God, and God only. And the more profoundly men realize this, the more prone they are to question the existence and right of any authority which comes between them and God, and to analyze its claims with microscopic inspection.

Whether or not we feel ourselves in sympathy with this tendency, I think we cannot fail to admit the fact of its existence, and to be consciously aware of the suspicious, or skeptical, or antagonistic attitude which confronts us as we go on assuming in our habit of life the rightfulness of authority manifested in those venerable forms which we have received by tradition from our fathers; and as we have occasion to perpetuate that tradition among those who are to succeed us, and to whom we seek to explain and account for it. And so candid and manly is this attitude in the main, so searching are the questions which accompany it, so frank and uncompromising is the attendant appeal to right reason, and the rejection of any claim to an authority which can offer no better apology for its existence than that it has hitherto been in the habit of existing, that we are bound in conscience to examine ourselves most seriously as to the grounds upon which we defer to authority, or seek to impose it upon others; to judge ourselves and our own convictions before we assume to pass judgment upon the convictions of others; to discriminate between that which is essential, and that which may have been, or is, or may again be, expedient in times or places, but which yet is clearly adventitious; to get clown in short to that which is simply just and right; to hold fast to that, and that only, as absolutely essential, and to deal with all else in that connection in the spirit of large-minded and conciliatory toleration.

Yet we must have some standard of right and justice. Conscience is capable of approving conformity to a standard outside of itself, but it is not capable of originating a standard for itself; and while we recognize the ideal of self-government subject to God, we must not debase that ideal by confusing God with self, nor forget that the will of God is the adequate rule of justice which conscience is appointed to apply in the conduct of the life of man.

Whether we shall seek that standard in Nature or in Revelation; whether we can find a standard outside of our own self-originated conceptions without Revelation; are questions which men must decide for themselves upon their own responsibility. Among fellow-Christians and fellow-Churchmen, however, I can but assume that these questions are settled; and that we unite in seeking our standard as to what is just in the matter of authority, as in other matters pertaining to the relations of men with God and with each other, in Revelation, and primarily and ultimately in the Holy Scriptures as the authentic evidence of that Revelation. That which we accept as essential and obligatory in the matter of authority must be founded in the declared will of God as presented to us in its last and highest expression in the Gospel. In other words we must look to Christ, and conform our judgment to His teachings, His commandments, and His institutions, and learn to discriminate between such authority as is based on these, and such authority as, either rightly or wrongly, wisely or unwisely, as the case may be, is of human imposition--not necessarily for that reason to be disregarded, but never to be placed upon the same level.

I have ventured to speak of the ideal of self-government subject to God only, as the Gospel ideal. I have done this first because I think the statement is true, and secondly because it naturally leads to the inquiry whether there are practical obligations which fall short of that ideal; and whether these are to be regarded as inconsistent with it, or as calculated to lead men on to the ultimate attainment of it.

Nothing can be clearer, if we view the matter dispassionately, than that Christ brought home to the individual conscience its proportionable responsibility for human action, and taught that the rectitude of human action as a whole was to be attained by the conformity of the individual will to the will of God. If there were no other proof of this, it might be established by His exhaustive summary of the Law and the Prophets,--Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and thy neighbour as thyself; and by that other principle of His formulation which reaches the sublime in its comprehensive simplicity,--Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them; for if every individual governed himself on this principle, there would be no room on earth for any other government. And so also in regard to all His precepts leading to the devotion of the individual life to Him, and its spiritual unity with Him, in which He taught His disciples that He would be in them and they in Him, as the Father was in Him and He in the Father --a closeness of relation which suggests that in its perfect accomplishment there would be no need for any other rule or guidance than that which should be simply His.

Yet while He set this ideal before men, and sought to uplift them to it, He was far from ignoring the practical. He knew what was in man, and needed not that any should tell him. He knew that civil government in one form or other had always existed among men, and He may be presumed to have discerned that, among those who had failed to attain, or who might be incapable of attaining the ideal, it had always been and would always be a practical need; and He recognized, and in His humanity submitted to it; while in His Divinity He never forbade nor limited its authority except by establishing the fundamental principles of righteousness upon which it ought to proceed. In like manner also He recognized the practical needs of men in the sphere of spiritual growth and conduct, and made formal provision for these needs.

It is easy, of course, to recognize the wisdom and the spirituality of the teachings of Christ, and their applicability to the process of the perfection of the individual; and no- less easy, judging from the drift of human opinion, to fall into the way of regarding Him as one of those great leaders of thought whose teachings have from time to time enlightened the world, and who have depended solely upon the mental apprehension of the worth of their ideas for the assimilation and perpetuation of them among men. Such a conception of Christ, however, leaves wholly out of view the distinctively official character of His work for man, as one who acted under the commission of the Father in His whole Ministry of Mediation, and who was in all that He did in that Ministry actuated by the Holy Spirit: and it naturally ignores also the organic nature of Christ's work among men.

Yet the evidence which we have of the moral and spiritual character of the teachings of Christ is of the same kind, and weight, and degree of credibility as is the evidence of the outward and visible character of the institutions which He associated with those teachings. If the spiritual unity of His faithful disciples with Himself, and their external union with Him in a visible society of His appointment, were contradictory one of the other, we should still, upon the principles of reason, be obliged to receive each upon the evidence by which it is supported. How much more then when we perceive them to be not conflicting with, but supplementary to each other; when we recognize in the external union the appointed means to the desired end of the spiritual unity; and when we see in the Faith and Sacraments of the Church and the Ministry appointed to preserve and perpetuate them, the effectual means of promoting the spiritual life with which Christ came to redeem, ennoble, and immortalize that life which we had by Nature, and in which, unaided by His Grace, we are at best so helpless and so hopeless:--that we might have life and have it more abundantly. If we view the Christ as being--as the title itself denotes--the incumbent of an office, we can have no difficulty in realizing the organic character of His work, and the provision which He made for its continuance after His departure from the earth. It would be tedious on an occasion like the present to cite the abundant passages which teach us the nature of this, work, and the provision made by Him and those who succeeded Him for its perpetuation. It may suffice to summarize the facts to which such evidence points. That our Lord gathered disciples about Him whom He taught, and who even in the earlier stage of His ministry were baptized with a baptism distinct from that of John; that out of these disciples He chose certain ones whom He called Apostles; that these He kept with Him not merely as companions, but that He might instruct them in the Faith which was founded upon Him and explained by Him; that to them He entrusted the duty of commemorating His Oblation of Himself in the Paschal Supper; that by several most formal and solemn charges He enlarged their functions; that He sent them as His Father had sent Him, that is, with power to send others also; and that upon His Ascension, declaring that all exousia or authority had been given to Him, He extended their mission throughout the world and to the end of time, promising to be with them in the exercise of the functions of baptizing and teaching and discipling of all nations even unto the end of the world--all these things are plainly written in the Gospel: and they show no less than that for the perpetuation of His work on earth Christ established a chief Office on terms of permanence, and that this Office was of the same general nature as His own; involving the same authority of speaking from God to the people in the way of benediction, and instruction in all those things which had been commanded, and of speaking from the people to God in the way of intercession by prayer and sacrifice of His appointment. His action was propitiatory, and essentially and personally meritorious: theirs derived all its merit and efficiency from His appointment. But the authority which they derived from Him was that which He Himself had exercised. To complete the parallel, the exousia which He conferred upon them was to be rendered effective, as His own had been, by the enabling power of the Holy Spirit; for they were not to enter upon the exercise of it until they had been endowed with the dunamis, or power from on high--which power is recorded to have been bestowed upon them in the gift of the Holy Ghost. And this Office they both fully exercised, and also provided for its perpetuation: so that we may say in the words of an old writer, that "Whoever carefully reads over the New Testament will find that scare any act of power was done by our Lord whilst He lived on earth, which was not, at least in some degree, exercised by the Apostles after His Ascension."

Plainly evidenced also is the course pursued by the Apostles in the perpetuation of that Ministry which they had received. Guided by the Holy Spirit in the administration of that entirety of official authority in the Church which they had received from Christ, they provided for the continuance of it after their departure, as Christ had in view of His own departure; and this provision involved in their case the distinction of Orders, which has ever since been continued. They ordained to two degrees subordinate to their own--those which were then and have ever since been known as the Diaconate and the Presbyterate; and they admitted some to their own Order, and transmitted to them their ordinary official authority, these last being known at first by the name of Apostles, but afterwards by that of Bishops--a name at first equally applicable to Presbyters as an alternate designation, but later appropriated to the holders of the Apostolic Office. Thus to hold what we call the doctrine of Apostolic Succession means that we hold that the Bishops are successively the incumbents of the same office to which Christ appointed His Apostles, and that they are possessed of their ordinary official authority; that is of the authority which belonged to their office, as distinguished from those extraordinary gifts and powers which were purely personal to themselves, and of course not successive in their character. In regard to which it may be well to remark, as the point is not always noted, that there was nothing distinctive of an Apostle in what are called extraordinary gifts, such as speaking with tongues, discerning of spirits, etc.; for many who were not Apostles possessed these in abundance. What was distinctive of the Apostle as such was the authority of His Office, which no one but an Apostle had. So that we affirm nothing extravagant, nor either beyond the evidence of Scriptural testimony, or out of harmony with the plain facts of life, when we say that the Incumbents of the Apostolic Office now, have the same ordinary official authority as was possessed by those who first held it.

It is involved in the nature of this Office that its authority is supreme--there being none on earth above it; that it is universal--there being no earthly limit to its exercise; that it is continuous, and perpetual even to the end of time; and that it reaches to the fulfilment of every function which is essential to the discharge of those duties of representing God to the people, and of representing the people to God, which by Christ's appointment are designed for the gift and strengthening, the guidance, oversight and transmission of the spiritual life of His disciples. Viewed in respect of outward circumstance, and the laborious and infinite details devolved upon its incumbents, this Office may sometimes seem to be humble if not humiliating: viewed in respect of its heavenly associations, its immeasurable spiritual influences, and its ineffable spiritual satisfactions it is sublime.

There is also a certain characteristic of this authority, resulting not so much from its supremacy as from what may be called its entirety, which gives to it perhaps the most important and far-reaching influence which it possesses. Wherever in human government the whole authority is lodged, such powers as may elsewhere be exercised in the sphere of the same government are derived from and subordinate to that original and entire authority. There is nothing peculiar to the Episcopate in this. It is simply the logical and necessary result of the possession of the entirety of authority in any government. Powers may be imparted by formal cession, or yielded by tacit consent, but they must have come from the original source or they could not have been attained; and in the event of such change in the conditions under which they were acquired as precludes their exercise, they revert automatically to the original source.

Always too, there is the residuum--the authority which lies back of all express or implied grants of specific powers: in which inheres all that is not granted, and which, in some degree, both determines the extent of those grants, and interprets the true significance of the use which is being made of them. So it is a current maxim in our civil system that powers not granted remain in the people. That is because in civil matters we recognize the sovereignty of the people. In any simply autocratic government, the same principle would apply theoretically to the Autocrat. The principle indeed is essentially characteristic of sovereignty: and the Episcopate, within its proper sphere, is sovereign.

The question remains, What is that sphere? Unless we would take the ground that no other right or power of government in the world exists except such as is lodged in the Episcopate; or the other extremely opposite ground that right and power exist everywhere else in the world except in the Episcopate, we must ascertain what the proper range of Episcopal authority is. That task, if we seek to accomplish it by deduction and inference from the facts of history, and by collation and analysis of all that in that history Bishops have done and suffered, is not merely appalling; it is impossible. With equal good faith, with equal industry and intelligence, various enquirers must arrive at various results. It is surely the wisest course to seek for the principles which underlie the administration of the Office: and if we can find these, to make them the standards by which we test previous or existing practice; striving always in this as in all other matters, each in his several vocation, so far as in his own part lies, to conform the practical to the ideal. The fundamental proposition in this enquiry is that the authority of the Bishops, being such as belonged to the Apostles officially, must be subject to such limitations as attached to the Apostles themselves in the discharge of their Office. This is obvious unless 'it be supposed that the Apostles conferred greater powers than they themselves possessed, which is absurd.

It is equally plain that certain limitations to Apostolic action were necessarily involved in the original commission itself: as, Ist, the duty of obedience to the laws of God--the Apostles being ministers of the Divine will, and not of their own arbitrary power; 2dly, the duty of confining their official acts to matters of spiritual, as distinguished from civil concern--the Apostles being rulers in respect of the one, and subjects or members in respect of the other; and 3dly, the duty of subordination on the part of the individual Apostle to the College of Apostles--a duty resulting not from any inherent sovereignty of the body over its members, but from the coordinate authority of all, each having his undivided equal share of the whole, and the commission of the individual presupposing his acting with the express or implied assent of his brethren holding the same commission, such assent being of course conformable to the fundamental laws of Christ's Kingdom.

And beside these principles of limitation involved in the Apostolic Commission itself, the Holy Spirit by the action of the Apostles whom He inspired, appears to have prescribed two further limitations to the exercise of their supreme authority.

One of these was the duty of consulting with inferior orders and laity--which seems to be fairly deducible from the precedent of the Apostolic conference with elders and brethren described in the book of the Acts, and to be all that is in that connection fairly deducible from that precedent. The deduction too is strengthened by the Apostolic injunction as to taking oversight not as lords over God's heritage but as ensamples to the flock, and by the pervading spirit of love rather than of force which characterizes the whole of the Apostolic administration, and which appears to be manifested too through the ages nearest to the Apostles in the Diocesan Councils by whose judgment the Bishops invariably steadied their own authoritative action. All of which involves not the least derogation of Apostolic or Episcopal authority within its proper range, but plainly tends to unity of mind, and to the acquirement of that moral force which attaches to authoritative action sustained by the consent of the governed.

The other of the two limitations, resulting from experience under guidance of the Holy Spirit rather than from original imposition, had reference to the field within which powers were to be exercised. For while the Apostles had a common and universal mission to all the world, yet they neither went in a body all together through the world, nor did they work each one without regard to the other, but they separated, and adopted limits for their several work; sometimes directing their mission to different classes of persons, as St. Peter to the Jews and St. Paul to the Gentiles; but more generally regulating it by distinction of place: which again led on to the fixed residence in particular districts which became characteristic of their successors, and produced what we call Diocesan Episcopacy.

These five limitations upon the exercise of the supreme authority of the Apostolic or Episcopal Office--that it must be exercised in accordance with the law of God; that it is to be confined to spiritual matters, as distinguished from those of civil and temporal concern; that it involves the subordination of the individual Bishop to the determination of his brethren of the Episcopate given by common consent, and conformably to the fundamental laws of Christ's Kingdom; that it is to be exercised not tyrannically, but with clue regard to the inferior members of the Body of Christ; and that it is to be exercised by individual Bishops not everywhere indiscriminately, but in fields of work to which they are duly appointed--all rest upon the same basis of Divine Will as the authority itself, and therefore claim from us the same acceptance.

I will not weary you by the elaboration or discussion of these principles. I persuade myself that, elementary as they are, they will commend themselves to your judgment both in respect of their ground and of their scope. But lest they should seem to you to be of too general or abstract a character to be of use in the solution of practical difficulties, permit me to remark in conclusion that nothing is more important either to our peace of mind, or to our capacity to throw our personal influence in the right direction, than the consciously clear perception of the principles upon which those difficulties ought to be adjusted; whether or not we can in all cases succeed in adjusting them to our satisfaction. If I have put a right estimate upon the essential authority and duty of the Episcopate, it is impossible to lay too much stress on Apostolic Succession, and equally impossible to measure the greatness of the spiritual power and influence of a Bishop by the mere performance of his customary outward functions. If these functions, of Confirmation and Ordination for instance, were merely external they might well seem an insufficient outcome of so vast a preparation. But associate with them the idea of grace. Meditate upon that. There is no limit to the magnitude of the power and influence which operate through one who is enabled by grace to convey grace: and as there can be no more worthy ambition on the part of a Bishop than to magnify his office by devoting himself to the faithful fulfilment of his spiritual mission; so there can be no more worthy ambition on the part of priest or layman than to uphold and promote that mission and share in the benefits which it was founded to impart.

But while this too is easily admitted it still seems perhaps to be in the region of the abstract and impracticable, because there are in fact conditions existing which hinder the realization of it. It is something, however; to know what we ought to be, and to recognize exactly what hindrances oppose us. And with regard to the matter of Episcopal authority and; duty possibly we may not have sufficiently considered what has been done by Providence in the abatement of hindrances to which in times past it has been subjected.

All the powers of the Ministry, lodged in their fulness in the Episcopate and in measure and degree in the Presbyterate and Diaconate, are properly classed under the term of Order: the power of Order being the capacity to do what Christ has appointed to be done by His ministry of grace. The power of order, however, may under possible circumstances be possessed without the right to exercise it. This distinction between power and right is the distinction between order and jurisdiction; and while this jurisdiction includes only the right to exercise the power of order we know it as Spiritual jurisdiction; and we recognize if as lodged in its fullness in the Episcopate, as we recognize the power of order as in its fulness lodged in the Episcopate. If the Bishops had never had any other than the spiritual jurisdiction, that is the right to exercise, confer, and regulate the power of order, it is difficult to see how there could have been any hindrances to its recognition and execution except such as might have grown out of the opposition of the world, which they were appointed to overcome. But other jurisdiction has been from one source or another bestowed upon Bishops, sometimes from the State and sometimes from the customs and laws of the Churches with which they have been associated; and corresponding duties on their part have resulted: and thus a certain temporal jurisdiction has attached to them, so that it has often been difficult to say where the spiritual ended and where the temporal began; and in proportion to the extent of this confusion hindrances have abounded. What Providence has done for us in this matter has been to settle the Church in a country whose civil system utterly repudiates all interference with purely spiritual jurisdiction; and to settle that Church itself moreover in the conscious recognition of the fundamental distinction between such ecclesiastical jurisdiction as is purely spiritual, and such as partakes of a civil character in its bearing upon matters of temporal concern: so that never since the time of Constantine has there been a better opportunity for the free exercise of the purely spiritual authority. Our aim, I think, ought to be to avail ourselves of these advantages; not to disparage or question them, nor to allow them to be overborne by reactionary impulses which under pretence of magnifying the rights of the Episcopal Office would seek to extend them beyond the sphere in which only they exist. The distinction between the spiritual and the temporal while plain in principle, is sometimes difficult to apply in practice, and often the veneration for the Episcopal character, and the influence which emanates from it, dispose men to think that there are no matters of Church concern which do not fall within the jurisdiction of the Office. But this is really to confuse the temporal with the spiritual, and to ignore a distinction which is inherent in the nature of things. The Church is none the less a society of men because it is a spiritual society: and the fact that it was divinely instituted for the attainment of spiritual ends, does not, either in fact or in right, hinder it from having temporal concerns. And in these temporal concerns it differs not in principle from any other society which under civil sanction may exist for other than spiritual ends; and it has the same right to deal with them according to its own will as a body, in which every constituent part has a will equal to that of every other such part; so that distinctions of Office existing for spiritual purposes do not hinder the essentially equal rights of all in the regulation of temporal concerns.

In no way more effectually than by clearly recognizing and acting with prudence upon this distinction can we exalt to its just height the true right of the Episcopal Office, and so set forward the realization of that spiritual unity with Christ for which He has established that Office with which He has promised to be even unto the end of the world.

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